Driver convicted for deadly accident in Uber’s self-driving car

Five years after 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was killed, hit by a Uber self-driving car in Tempe, Arizona, the human driver, Rafaela Vasquez, was convicted by a court and sentenced to three years of supervised probation without imprisonment. Eventually, Vasques pleaded guilty to endangerment, avoiding the prison she feared most.

Initially, Vasquez was charged with ‘negligent homicide’, which could lead to eight years of prison if convicted by a jury. By pleading guilty to “recklessly endangering another person with a substantial risk of imminent death or physical injury,” the sentence was on probation. Rafaela Vasquez is a transgender person who told the media she feared being assaulted when imprisoned among men.

Who’s responsible?

By this ‘arrangement’, the question remains unanswered who’s actually responsible in an accident with an autonomous driving car: the ‘driver’ who is to ‘babysit’ the car’s artificial intelligence and intervene when that fails, or the car’s manufacturer?

Reports showed that the car, a Volvo XC90 equipped with Uber’s self-driving technology, detected the victim, Elaine Herzberg, 5,6 seconds before impact. Herzberg was walking outside the marked crosswalk to cross a dark street at that moment.

The log shows that the computer classified the woman walking with the bicycle at her hand first as ‘vehicle’, changing its mind repeatedly to ‘other’ and ‘bicycle’ again and trying to guess the ‘objects’ trajectory.

Only 1,2 seconds before impact, the software decided collision was imminent. Steering around wasn’t possible anymore as it could trip over the vehicle, and it should have hit the brakes. At that time, the software is designed to hold braking for one second, a condition called ‘action suppression’ by Uber, while examining ‘the nature of the detected hazard’.

The safety driver wasn’t watching the road

Only 0,2 seconds before impact, the car sounded an alarm for the driver to take over. But the 44-year-old safety driver wasn’t looking at the street then and only hit the brakes a second after the car hit the pedestrian at 43,5 mph (70 km/h), flinging her 20 meters away.

Quite daunting was that Volvo’s own emergency braking system, which could have reacted on time to mitigate the severeness of the accident or even avoid it, was deliberately disabled by the Uber engineers. Otherwise, it could have conflicted with Uber’s software, experts admitted at that time.

Still, the report by The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), after an investigation that took 20 months, cited the ‘distraction of the safety driver’ as the ‘probable cause’ of the crash. In the initial indictment, Vasques was presumed to have been watching the TV show The Voice on her smartphone at the time of the accident.

Looking for Slack messages

Later, Vasques and her attorneys pleaded she was checking her phone for Slack messages from her employer and admitted that this conduct was reckless. Uber forbade drivers to use smartphones while supervising self-driving cars but asked them to keep their smartphones at hand to check for messages. That raises questions among experts about Uber’s policies.

Eventually, the deadly crash in Tempe in 2019 led to Uber giving up its self-driving program in which it had invested over one billion dollars. In December 2020, Uber sold its self-driving unit, Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), to Aurora Innovation, Inc. from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Aurora was co-founded by Chris Urmson, the former chief technology officer of Google’s autonomous car division that later became Waymo. It developed the Aurora Driver, an intelligent autonomous driving system that can be implemented in cars and trucks. Uber bought a stake in Aurora and announced it would integrate Waymo self-driving cars in its Arizona ride-hailing platform this year.


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